Crime Fentanyl Operation Could Have Made 2.5M Pills, Authorities Say as Ringleader Sentenced
How Biden could make our growing problem with fentanyl even worse
Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have reached more than 100,000, due to fentanyl and its analogs, but the Biden administration is pushing for a policy that would only make things worse.In September, the Biden administration urged Congress to make permanent a failed Trump-era policy that could further criminalize and endanger those who use drugs: a classwide ban on fentanyl analogs (drugs that are molecularly similar to fentanyl), which is set to expire Jan. 28. Almost two-thirds of drug overdose deaths in the provisional data involved synthetic opioids (including fentanyl and its analogs). That’s 64,178 deaths, compared to about 36,000 in 2019 and about 31,000 in 2018.
A fentanyl operation could have made about 2.5 million pills, authorities said as the ringleader, Bradley Woolard, was sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison.
The amount of potential pills, with the supplies ordered by Woolard's accomplice, Anthony Pelayo, 35, is so extensive that authorities had a sentencing range from around 30 years to life in prison. As it stands, the sentencing is one of the longest federal drugs sentences ever in Western Washington, according to the Associated Press.
Federal jury finds pharmacy chains responsible for Ohio opioid crisis
A federal jury in Cleveland on Tuesday found three of the nation's largest pharmacy chains, Walgreens, CVS and Walmart, helped fuel the opioid crisis in two Ohio counties. This decision was the first such ruling against the retail pharmacy industry.The verdict could set the tone for countless other lawsuits across the country that seek to hold pharmacies responsible for the flood of highly addictive opioid pills into communities. The crisis has killed more than half a million Americans to date.
Along with the supplies, there was also $1.1 million discovered throughout the headquarters of Woolard's operation. Over several weeks, federal agents did four searches to completely recover the money, finding it in places like a hole below the dishwasher and beneath the bathroom sink floorboards. Along with the million dollars, agents found a secret room housing over two dozen guns, homemade silencers, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
"It's a lot of money. It's a lot of drugs. It's a tragedy," U.S. District Judge Coughenour said.
The operation started in 2015 when Woolard, 42, and Pelayo ordered fentanyl powder from China. This was when synthetic opioid was beginning to emerge as a cheaper, stronger, and deadlier alternative to heroin. They made the pills look like oxycodone someone could get from a pharmacy with stamps that marked the product "M30."
Jury holds pharmacies responsible for role in opioid crisis
CLEVELAND (AP) — CVS, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies recklessly distributed massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties, a federal jury said Tuesday in a verdict that could set the tone for U.S. city and county governments that want to hold pharmacies accountable for their roles in the opioid crisis. Lake and Trumbull counties blamed the three chain pharmacies for not stopping the flood of pills that caused hundreds of overdose deaths and cost each of the two counties about $1 billion, said their attorney, who in court compared the pharmacies' dispensing to a gumball machine.
They also purchased pill presses, learning to use them in a workshop at Woolard's home in Arlington, then at Pelayo's nearby property.
"The presses used by Mr. Woolard and Mr. Pelayo were capable of pressing thousands of pills an hour, and Mr. Woolard and Mr. Pelayo pressed so many pills over the course of the conspiracy that they wore out multiple presses," assistant U.S. attorneys Karyn S. Johnson and Mike Lang wrote in a sentencing memo.
For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:
Their case offers a look at how the production of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl or related drugs became a cottage industry across the country in those years. They enlisted a number of other people to receive shipments of fentanyl powder they ordered on the "dark web" using bitcoin or wire transfers; investigators initially didn't know if the different shipments were part of the same conspiracy. Some of the shipments were labeled "lab supplies."
Public nuisance laws in opioid cases give hope to both sides
CLEVELAND (AP) — A jury's finding this week that three major pharmacy chains are responsible for contributing to the scourge of opioid addiction in two Ohio counties may be just the beginning of a protracted legal battle that ultimately could leave the communities no better off. The reason is the central argument — that pharmacies created a “public nuisance” by dispensing an overwhelming quantity of prescription painkillers into each county. Thousands of state and local governments have sued drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies over a crisis that has contributed to more than 500,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. over the past two decades.
Because the pair were manufacturers and wholesalers, agents were unable to link any overdoses to their operation.
But deaths from synthetic opioid overdoses soared in Snohomish County while the conspiracy was active—from eight in 2015, to 13 in 2016, to 26 in 2017 and 58 in 2018, according to data from the Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute at the University of Washington.
The number of people overdosing on fentanyl has only skyrocketed since then, in Snohomish County, Washington state and across the country, with massive amounts of the drug being smuggled in from Mexico in recent years, federal authorities said. Overdose deaths have soared to about 100,000 per year nationally.
Lang told the judge Tuesday that he looked for people ravaged by the pills Woolard sold, some of whom likely did not even realize they were taking fentanyl.
"It's hard to find them," he said. "They don't show up in the courtroom. But they have a voice. There is suffering out there."
A jury convicted Woolard and Pelayo of drug, gun and money laundering charges in August after a two-week trial. A top distributor, Jerome Isham, was also convicted of drug and gun charges. Eight other people were also charged in the case, with several, including Woolard's estranged wife, receiving lighter sentences after cooperating with investigators.
'It's scary': Overdose deaths driven by fentanyl mixed with other drugs
Overdose deaths hit new heights in the U.S. this year, a fourth wave of the overdose epidemic, in which a growing number of drug users die with multiple substances in their systems. Behind that 100,000 figure, they said, is an ongoing surge in the number of cocaine, methamphetamine and other drug deaths that are connected to the simultaneous use of fentanyl. “Probably more than half of the cases involve fentanyl mixed with another drug,” said Dr. Robert Anderson, the chief of mortality statistics at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
The U.S. Attorney's Office sought 25 years for Pelayo, of Marysville, who was convicted of an additional gun charge, before Coughenour sentenced him to 15 years last week. Isham got 10 years.
Woolard and Pelayo both have young children. Neither had significant criminal records or had ever been convicted of using violence, though prosecutors said Woolard threatened to kill a cooperating witness.
"They make me sound like Pablo Escobar of Marysville, which is not true," Pelayo told the judge at his sentencing.
While Pelayo indicated in text messages to others that he wouldn't take the pills he helped make because they were too dangerous, Woolard had a long-running pill addiction that began after he broke his ankle in 2001. His habit ran about $1,000 a day by the time he was arrested, he wrote in a letter to the judge.
Woolard spent some of the proceeds of the conspiracy attending spa-like drug treatment resorts in Costa Rica and Mexico at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000 per month.
Fentanyl test: This strip of paper can help prevent a drug overdose .
It's a little strip of paper not much longer than 2 inches, and it has the potential to prevent a drug overdose. © Mark Lennihan/AP/FILE FILE - This May 10, 2018, file photo shows an arrangement of fentanyl test strips in New York. After years of rising death tolls from a surge in drug addiction, Kentucky officials on Thursday, July 18, 2019, reported the first statewide drop in drug overdose deaths since 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File) These strips can detect fentanyl, the deadliest drug in the United States, when it's mixed with other drugs.